Described as a psychological phenomenon, the exploding head syndrome leads people to wake up by abrupt noises, accompanied by the sensation of an explosion taking place in their head.
According to researchers, nearly one in five of the college students interviewed admitted they experienced the sensation at least one. Some students had such a bad experience, that it impacted their lives.
“Unfortunately for this minority of individuals, no well-articulated or empirically supported treatments are available, and very few clinicians or researchers assess for it,” said Brian Sharpless, lead researcher at Washington State University.
More than one third of those who experienced the exploding head syndrome also accused isolated cases of sleep paralysis, a disturbing experience in which one cannot move or speak when waking up.
Sleep paralysis is a condition in which people literally dream with their eyes wide open, and both exploding head syndrome and sleep paralysis have been incorrectly labeled as unnatural events.
The waking dream resulting from sleep paralysis can easily pass as convincing hallucinations, which explains why people in the Middle Ages were convinced they saw demons or witches.
The disorder tends to come as one is falling asleep. Researchers suspect it stems from problems with the brain shutting down.
“When the brain goes to sleep, it’s like a computer shutting down, with motor, auditory and visual neurons turning off in stages. But instead of shutting down properly, the auditory neurons are thought to fire all at once,” Sharpless said. “That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,” he added.
The findings were published in the Journal of Sleep Research.